Follow foodtimeline on Twitter FoodTimeline library
Food Timeline FAQs: Aztec, Maya, & Inca foods and recipes

Have questions? Ask!

Recommended reading:

A note of caution:
The first written descriptions we have of Pre-Columbian societies came from Spanish explorers and missionaries in the 16th century. Historians warn us these primary accounts contain many innacuracies. This was, in part, due new food encounters and European/Catholic bias.


Vegetables & fruits...Meats & poultry...Chinampas (agricluture, floating gardens)... markets...meals & dining customs... casseroles.....chia..... Aztec chocolate...modernized Aztec chocolate recipe

"Aztec a subject for which relatively rich written source material exists...The chronicle of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who accompanied Cortes...and the illustrated work...of Father Sahagun, written in the 1530s, are full of fascinating detail for food historians. The Aztecs, coming south from the deserts of New Mexico, had in the 14th century occupied sites in the valley of Mexico, an area rich in lakes, whose produce (fowl of many kinds, fish, frogs, water insects, algae) the newcomers adopted with enthusiasm. They flourished and established their dominion over a wide area...Sahagun tells us they feasted...on white tortillas, grains of maize, turkey eggs, turkeys, and all kinds of fruit. He gives a list of 25 fruits, including four varieties of sweet potato, sweet manioc, avocados, and come cacti. It is said that they flinched from chocolate at first, but when the Indians set the example they drank and found it good...The description by Bernal Diaz of how Motechuhzoma was served and ate, and of the thousands of jars of foaming chocolate, is famous. It contrasts strongly with the general impression of the Aztecs as an abstemious and frugal people, who subsisted on meagre fare and for whom fast...were a part of the way of life...Maize was the staple food of the Aztecs and the focus of a large part of their religion...The food value of the maize was greatly enhanced by the process called nixtamalization...Beans and chia were important enough to figure as items of tribute paid to the Aztec state, as were amaranth and squash seeds. Chilli was available...The short list of domesticated creatures has headed by the turkey and included the dog as well as...bees. The culinary sophistication of the Aztecs is apparent from the extraordinarily long list of spices and flavourings which they would use with chocolate."
---Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 44)
[NOTE: This book has far more information than can be paraphrased here. It also contains separate historic entries for many of the foods referenced above. If you need more details ask your librarian to help you find a copy.]

Vegetables & fruits
"Like all Mesoamerican peoples before and since, the Aztecs depended heavily on maize, or corn...for their sustenance. Maize is a remarkable plant whose domestication made possible the evolution of Mesoamerican civilizatoins. Maize exists in many different varieties, adapated to specific local conditions of soil and climate, and it can grow nearly everywhere in Mesoamerica except for the cold high mountains...Maize was eaten in a variety of forms. Most common was the tortilla, a round, flat, toasted bread that has been a staple of Mesoamerican cuisine from the Classic period through the present. Tortillas were prepared by first soaking the shelled corn in an alkali grinding the corn into a four on a metate or grinding-stone; then, shaping tortillas by hand; and finally, cooking them on a clay griddle called a comalli. Instruction in tortilla-making was one of the fundamental lessons mothers taught their daughters...Tortillas could be eaten fresh from the griddle, or they could be stored for later use, including meals eaten away from home by farmers, merchants, soldiers, or other travellers. Also popular were tamales, a more ancient, steamed food. Xoars, a maize dough was shaped into balls, often with some beans, chiles, or sometimes meat in the center, then wrapped in maize leaves and steamed in a large clay pot. Other forms in which the Aztecs ate maize were atole, a thin gruel of fine maize flour in water flavored with chilies or fruits; pozole, a soup or stew containing large maize kernels (hominy); and elote or corn on the cob. Maize figured prominently in Aztec religion and thought....The symbolism of maize permeated Aztec thought...Beans were second only to maize in the Aztec diet. Like tortillas, they were served at every meal. Tomatoes, avocados, and several varieties of squash were also common, and squash seeds were eaten in several forms. A large variety of chili peppers gave spice and flavor to food. The seeds of domesticated chia and amaranth plants were ground in the same manner as corn and eaten in several ways. The Aztecs shaped amaranth dough into small figures of the gods and ate them on ritual occasions. Amaranth leaves were also eaten as greens, and chia seeds were pressed to extract oil. Nopal, the prickly pear cactus, was cultivated in the Valley of Mexico for its sweet succulent furit and paddle-shaped leaf, which was a popular vegetable once the spines were removed."
---The Aztecs, Michael E. Smith [Blackwell:Oxford] 1996(p. 65-6)

"Aztec farmers inherited a knowledge of plants that had developed over thousands of years. Many more varieties of plants were originally domesticated in the Americas than in the Old World, and many of the immensley varied foods and dishes in modern Mexican cuisine today originated a long time before the Spanish arrived. In ancient Mexico, the dog, turkey, and duck were the only domesticated livestock; sheep, goats, pigs, cattle, and horses were introduced by the Sapnish. The Aztecs' basic diet therefore tended towards vegetables and fruits, supplemented by game animals, fish, turkeys, and other birds, and various kinds of insects. Maize was the universal staple, and the basis of the economy. It was prepared as it still is in rural Mexican villages, by cooking the kernels with lime, and then grinding the dough on a stone slab with a long cylindrical grinding-stone. The dough was patted into thin round tortillas, or wrapped in corn-husk tamales with a piece of meat or another flavoring; it was a very versatile foodstuff that could be used to create a variety of dishes. The many species of beans were a principal source of protein. Aztec diet featured a diversity of chiles, whith a wide range of flavors and hotness. Chiles are important sources of vitamins A and C, and also serve as condiments and stimulants. Squashes and calabashes (used as containers) were a third important crop. Huautli (amaranth) was a very high protein grain that was second in importance only to maize...The Aztecs raised several varieties of onions, as well as red tomatoes, xictomatl, and green tomatoes, tomatl. Sweet potatoes, camotli, were grown as an important root crop. The jicama was also steamed or stewed with other ingredients in a variety of dishes. Peanuts and popcorn were other significant elements in the diet. The Aztecs chewed gum (chicle), bitumen, and other natural gums to clean their teeth...Squash seeds and many fruits were cultivated, including mamey, white and black zapotes, chirimoyas, guavas, and custard apples. Other important vegetable crops were nopal cactus paddles, the fruit of the prickly pear, the Pitaya cactus, and the maguey agave, whose fermented juice provided pulque, and whose baked leaves became a candy-like sweet...Among the more well-known spices were chenopodium coriander and sage. Vanilla, extracted from the pods of a species of orchid, was among the most esteemed flavorings. Chocolate was prepared by grinding toasted cacao beans, sometimes with parched corn, and then mixing the powder with water. This was beeaten with a wooden whisk until foamy and flavored with vanilla orchid pods or sweetened with honey. Like tea and coffee, this beverage is rich in caffein and was much prized in ancient Mesoamerica.
---The Aztecs, Richard F. Townsend [Thames and Hudson:London], revised edition 2000 (p. 180-1)

Animals foods
"Dogs, turkeys, and the Musovy duck were the only domesticated animals in ancient Mesoamerica. All were used for food, but they made only a minor contribution to the Aztec diet. The Aztecs also fished and hunted wild game, but again these food sources were limited...Archaeologists do find the bones of fish, deer, rabbit, iguana, dog, turkey, and other animals in Aztec domestic trash deposits, but rarely in dense concentrations. Meat from large animals was a minor part of the Aztec diet. Early Spanish observers noted the widespread use of insects among the Aztecs, including ants, grasshoppers, manuey worms, and jumil bugs. Insects are high in protein, tasty, and could often be harvested in large numbers. The Aztecs also gathered great amounts of blue-green spirulina algae...from the surface of the lakes. This algae, known as tecuitlatl, is extremely high in protein, grows rapidly, and abundantly, and is easy to gather with fine nets...The Spanish soldiers and priests had a low opinion of the palatability of this algae, but it was much prized by the Aztecs."
---The Aztecs, Smith (p. 67)

Chinampas: floating agricultural gardens

"Raised fields, or chinampas, were an ancient Mesoamerican technology for turning swamps into highly productive fields. Large straight ditches were dug to drain away excess eater. Between the ditches, long narrow artificial islands were built up to favor planting surfaces. Mud and muck from the lake bottom were piled up, along with vegetation and other organic matter, and the fields were held together with wooden takes driven into the lake bottom. Trees were also planted to help stabilize the fields. The resulting plots were very productive. The muck and organic matter served as fertilizers and the roots of the maize and other crops drew on abundant groundwater from the naturally high water table. The fields were piled high enough to prevent the roots becoming waterlogged, and fertility was maintained by periodically adding more vegetation and rich much scraped from the canals. Farmers used canoes to travel on the canals between the fields. Plants were germinated on seedbeds built on floating reed rafts, and these were pulled by canoe to individual chinampa plats for replating. These floating seedbeds have given rise to the modern term 'floating gardens,' used mistakenly to refer to the chinampa fields themselves. Their high fertility and their location in the frost free southern Valley of Mexico allowed three or four crops to be grown annually on the chinampas. This made them the most intensive and productive of all Mesoamerican agricultural practices. The Aztecs build chinampas throughout Lakes Chalco and Xochimilco, the two lakes that formed the southern arm of the Valley of Mexico lake system...According to early colonial documents, chinampas were also built on the outskirts of Tenochtitlan...The chimampas have historically provided vegetables for the Mexico City market...Although raised field agriculture was practiced throughout Mesoamerica and South America in prehispanic times, the fields were abandoned before or soon after Spanish conquest in all areas except for the southern Valley of Mexico"
---The Aztecs, Michael E. Smith [Blackwell:Oxford UK] 1996 (p. 75-77)

"One of the most productive agricultural achievements in pre-contact New World history was the chinampa system, consisting of long, rectangular gardens made from reclaimed swampland within or connected to the lakes in the Basin of Mexico. The peoples who migrated into Central Mexico in the thirteenth century were expert farmers and learned that the success of the chinampa system depended in part on the remarkably fertile soils in and around the lakes. During their early years around Lake Tezcoco, the Aztecs developed their farming and military skills they as sought to attach themselves to the stronger city-states. They were eventually rejected by one of the most powerful communities and were driven off the mainland and forced to live on swamps. They responded by raising chinampa fields, which meant piling up vertical rows of mud and vegetation between pylons. Then they dug canals in between these raised gardens and planted willow trees on the margins of the fields so that the extensive roots of the willows would serve as effective walls to the earthen gardens. The Aztecs would dredge the mud out of the base of the canals and apply it to the garden soils to rejuvenate them with nutrients. Thus, each chinampa was a slender, rectangular strip of garden land 10 to 25 feet wide by 50 to 300 feet long. Farming families lived on these earthen platforms in houses made of cane, wood, and reeds. The Matricula de Tributos shows several waterways separating chinampas, each with the figure and a house of an owner whos name appears as a hieroglyph and a Spanish annotation. Eventually, this system of gardening required a sophisticated bureaucracy to manage the irrigations, planting, and harvesting of corns, amaranth, squash, and beans. It produced huge amounts of foodstuffs and flowers that contributed significantly to the rise and wealth of the city....This system of farming was so productive that parts of the surfaces of three lakes (Chalco, Xochimilco, and Tezcoxo) were reduced from open lakes into networks of chinampas and canals. This also meant that the produce could be easily loaded from the chinampas into canoes and taken directly to the urban markets along the lakes and to the markets in Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco... The chinampa lands were owned not by the individual farmer or this immediate family, but by the calpulli, or clan. On the one hand, the farmer and his family who worked the local chinampa could enlarge their holding if, for instance, the family increased in size and the calpulli owned vacant ground. On the other hand, failure to cultivated land under a farmer's control resulted, after two years, in a warning that one more year of neglect would mean loss of that land. These farmers paid 'taxes' in the form of foodstuffs, flowers, and cloth woven by women. These taxes went to support the local temple schools, governors, ministers, and the military, and especially the nobles. When the Spaniards came, they called the chinampas 'floating gardens,' a name that has persisted to this day."
---Daily Life of the Aztecs, David Carrasco [Greenwood Press:Westport VT] 1998 (p. 68-71)
Aztec markets:

"The chinampas surrounded most of the city and were abundant along some of the lakeshores. A sizable portion of the plants grown there was shipped to the many city markets. markets, called tianquizti, were in every sizable neighborhood within the island community and in every town and most villages in the countryside. Villages had market days at five-day intervals, with inhabitants walking as many as fifteen miles back and forth in order to meet friends and family...Everything that was grown or made in the empire could be found in this marketplace...Sellers had to pay a fee to the market superintendent...Trade was entirely by barter, but certain items came to have generally agreed value and were used almost as we use currency...Cocoa beans formed the everyday small change."
---Daily Life of the Aztecs (p. 71-74)

"...The Aztec economy itself...rested on the agricultural basis of the Mexican peoples--the farming of maize, beans, squash, chile peppers, tomatoes, amaranth, chia, and a host of other cultigens. Thousands of canoes daily crowded the great lake, bearing these products to the capital either as a direct tribute or as merchandise to be traded for craft items or other necessities in the market places. A tremendous surplus for the use of the city was extracted from the rich chinampas fringing the shallow lake and from fields nearby, while the upper slopes of the surrounding hills were probably largely given over to the cultivation of maguey, the source of the mildly alcoholic beverage so important to Aztec culture."
--- Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Michael D. Coe and Rex Koontz [Thames & Hudson:London] 2002 (p. 202-203)

"Most of the Aztec people, from nobles to serfs, were very well fed...Much of the diet of ordinary citizens consisted of tortillas dipped in a molli or sauce made of chiles ground with water; maize could also be taken in the form of steamed tamales, to which could be added ground or whole beans, but unlike their modern counterparts, these contained no fat or grease...Meat and fish dishes were for the elite, or reserved for feast days, while poorer people ate large quantities of greens instead...Amaranth occupied a special place in the Aztec diet. This eminently nutritious grain crop was imported into the capital in large quantities, but it was destined not so much for the kitchens of ordinary folk as for ceremonial use: it was mixed with ground maize, long with honey or maguey sap, formed into idols of the great god Huitzilopochotli, and consumed in this manner on his feast days...maize could be consumed not only as tortillas and tamales, but also in liquid form, as a maize gruel called atolli"
------Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Michael D. Coe and Rex Koontz [Thames & Hudson:London] 2002 (p. 203)

General meals & cooking

"The religious calendar had a marked effect on what people ate and when...The descriptions of preparing for an Aztec banquet tell us that there were specialist cooks who could be hired...Were it not for Sahagun we would have no idea what all these cooks, professional or not, were preparing...Because of Sahagun's all-encompassing curiousity and the diligence of his Aztec students and informants, we know more about the repertory of Aztec cuisine than we do about all but the most recent and most literate societies...The order of the meals seems to have been tortillas and tamales paired with a sauce first, followed by fruit, which Sahagun says the lords ate a wide variety of, and finishing up with the chocolate. How the lords handled the combination of tortillas and sauce is not specified--in less elegant circles one took a tortilla in the left hand, put the sauce in it, and used another tortilla in the right hand as a spoon...The sauce dishes or casseroles contained a wide sample of the animal kingdom, as well as some purely vegetarian mixtures...The great Aztec markets provided ready-made food and drink as well as raw materials. There seems to be more emphasis on maize products among the market food and fewer casseroles and sauces, but this may be an illusion...This is not all that they sold in the market, but the list grows interminable. There was not only street food in quantity but street drink as descriptions of a number of variants of atolli, many of which mush have served as instant meals. Basic atolli involved taking eight parts of water, six parts of maize, and lime and cooking them together until the maize softened. This is the standard process of nixtamalization, the way to prepare maize for the manufacture of dough for tortillas and tamales, and it tremendously enhances the nutritive value of the maize.""
---America's First Cuisines, Sophie D. Coe [University of Texas Press:Austin TX] 1994 (p. 108-118)
[NOTE: This book contains two full chapters devoted to Aztec food history. Your local public librarian will be happy to help you obtain a copy.]

Grand meals & dining customs

Food historians caution modern readers to "consider the source" when deciding what may (or may not) be accurate.

"Certainly [the] Aztec banquets, described by the Aztecs themselves, give us very different pictures from the famous one of Bernal Diaz. Where were all the tables and table linens he speaks of?...It is best to treat the Bernal Diaz account with caution, not with the totally dismissive attitued of Morgan, but questioning some of the finer details of cuisines and etiquette that the Spanish soldire crowdng with his fellows into Motecuhzoma's dining hall did not understand and therefore replaced with descriptions of European customs."
---America's First Cuisines, (p. 81)

Compare this description from Bernal Diaz:
"Once within Tenochtitlan Bernal Diaz gives us an even more famous, from the culinary point of view, description of what is called Motecuhzoma's banquet but was really just a routine daily meal when he was not under the obligation to fast. 'For his meals his cooks had more than thirty styles of dishes made according to their fashion and usage; and they put them on small low clay braziers so that they would not get cold.. They cooked more than three hundred dishes of the food which Motecuhzoma was going to eat, and more than a thousand more for the men of his guard; and when it was time to eat, sometimes Motecuhzoma went out with his nobles and mayordomos, who showed him which dish was the best or of which birds and things they were composed, and as they advised him, so he ate, but he went out to see the food on rare occasions, and only as a pastime...[Motechuhzoma] sat on a low, richly worked soft seat, and the table was also low, and made in the same manner as the seat, and there they put the tablecloths of white fabric, and some rather large handkerchiefs of the same, and four... women gave him water for his hands out of a kind of deep accquaminile, which they call jicales, and to catch the water they put down a kind of plate, and gave thim the towels, and two other women brought him the tortillas; and when he began to eat they put in front of him a thing like a door of wood all painted up with gold so so that he could not be seen eating; and the four women stood aside, and there came to his side four great lords and elders, who stood, and from time to time Motecuhzoma chatted with them and asked them questions, and as a great favor gave each of those old men a dish of what he had been eating; and they said that those old men were his near relations and councilors and judges, and the plates of food that Motecuhzoma gave them they ate standing, with much reverence, and without looking him in the fact. They served him on Cholula pottery, some red and some black. While he was eating it was unthinkable that there be any disturbance or loud speech among his guard...The same four women removed the tablecloths and returned with water for his hands, which they did mith much reverence. Motecuhzoma spoke to those four old noblemen of worthwhile things, and they took their leave with great respect, and he rested. When the great Motecuhzoma had eaten then all of his guard and many of his house servants ate, and it seems to me that they took our more than a thousand plates of well as more than two thousand jars of chocolate with its foam...and no end of fruit.'"
---America's First Cuisines, (p. 74-6)

...with this banquet description from Aztec sources:
"A rarer and grander banquet was given by a well-established members of the merchant caste. It was a once-in-a-lifetime effort, because it was considered a poor thing to die without having made such a splendid gesture, giving lustre to one's name, thanks to the gods, and pleasure to friends, relatives, and the leaders of the merchants. There is a long list of preparations to be made: first of all the purchase of cacao, and the teunacaztli...the Aztec spice of choice for chocolate, both major trade items which may well have been among the goods imported by the merchant himself...Other shopping had to be done: fowl, crockery, baskets, drinking vessels, chocolate stirrers, and three different kinds of cooking fuel had to be purchased...It was not only edibles, dishes, and fuel that the host had to obtain. He also had to recruit his friends and relatives to help serve the meal, as well as singers and dancers to entertain the guests and diviners to predict auspicious days for the festivities. It was not everybody who could be entrusted with the gracefully distributing, chocolate, and other drinks, nor could just anybod be asked to receive and seat the guests...The complex etiquette involved in simple acts...reminds us that the merchants among the Aztecs were almost a paramilitary force whose visits to distant trading partners often foretold an incursion by the Aztec army...Handing the food around did not seem to have any military significance, but there was a correct and proper way to do it. The food, in this case meat cooked with chilies, was served in an individual deep dish which was to be held in the center of the right hand. Tamales, which were passed around in a basket, were held in the left hand and dipped into the meat with its sauce..."
---America's First Cuisines, (p. 78-9)

Aztec feasting scenes from the Florentine Codex.

What did the average person eat?

"In Aztec times most Mexicans breakfasted long after they had begun the day, stopping only at about 10 a.m. for a bowl of maize porridge flavoured with honey or capsicums, which sustained them until the main meal taken in the early afternoon, when it was too hot to do anything else. This commonly consisted of tortillas, a dish of beans and a sauce made from tomatoes or peppers."
---Food in History, Reay Tannahill [Three Rivers Press:New York] 1988 (p. 208)

"Aztec commoners ate only two meals--one in the mid-morning after working for a few hours, and one in the mid-afternoon, when the sun was hottest. The common Aztec ate only two or three tortillas and a serving of beans at each meal. One might also partake of a nighttime snack of amaranth gruel...Aztgec commoner did not live by maice and beans alone. Tomatoes, avocadoes, and several varities of squash presented more choices at a mela. Chili peppers were used to flavor meals...Ants, grasshoppersm maguey worms, and jumil bugs, all available in large quantities, provided protein. Commoners gathered tequitlatl (blue-green spirulina algae) in large fine nets to provide large harvests of protein...Cacao was a popular drink among the royal classes and it was a valuable commmodity."
---Handbook To Life in the Aztec World, Manuel Aguilar-Moreno [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2007 (p. 371, 373)

Aztec tamales, tortillas & sauces
This is how Sahagun described the Aztec street markets:

"He sells meat tamales; turkey meat packets; plain tamales; tamales cooked in an earth oven; those cooked in an olla...grains of maize with chile, tamales with tamales, fish with grains of maize, frog tamales, frog with grains of maize, axolotl with grains of maize, axolotl tamales, tamales with grains of maize, mushrooms with grains of maize, tuna cactus with grains of maize, rabbit tamales, rabbit with grains of maize, pocket gopher tamales: tasty--tasty, very tasty...Where [it is] tasty, [it has] chile, salt, tomates, squash seeds: shredded, crumbled, juiced. He sells tamales of maize softened in wood ashes, the water of tamales, tamales of maize softened in lime--narrow tamales, fruit tamales, cooked bean tamales,; cooked beans with grains of maize, cracked beans with grains of maize; broke, cracked grains of maize. [He sells] salted wide tamales, tamales bound up on top, [with] grains of maize thrown in; crumbled, pounded tamales; spotted tamales, pointed tamales, white fruit tamales, red fruit tamales, turkey egg tamales, turkey eggs with grains of maize; tamales of tender maize, tamales of green maize, brick-shaped tamales, braised ones; plain tamales, honey tamales, bee tamales, tamales with grains of maize, squash tamales, crumbled tamales, maize flower tamales. The bed food seller [is] he who sells filthy tamales, discolored tamales--broken, tasteless, quite tasteless, inedible, frightenting, deceiving; tamales made of chaff, swollen tamales, spoiled tamales, foul tamales--sticky, gummy; old tamales, cold tamales-- dirty and sour, very sour, exceedingly sour, stinking. The food seller sells tortillas which [are] thick, thickish, thick overall, extremely thick; he sells thin [ones]--thin tortillas, stretch-out tortillas,; disclike, straight...with shelled beans, cooked shelled beans, uncooked shelled beans; with shelled beans mahsed; chile with maize, tortillas with meat and grains of maize, folded...with chile--chile wrapped, gathered in the hand; ashen tortillas, washed tortillas. He sells folded tortillas, thick tortillas, coarse tortillas. He sells tortillas with turkey eggs, tortillas made with honey, pressed ones, glove-shaped tortillas, plain tortillas, assorted ones, braised ones, sweet tortillas, amaranth seed tortillas, squash tortillas, green maize tortillas, brick-shaped tortillas, tuna cactus tortillas; broken, crumbled, old tortillas; cold tortillas, toasted ones, dried tortillas, stinking tortillas. He sells foods sauces, hot sauces; fried [food], olla-cooked [food], juices, sauces of juices, shredded [food] with chile, with squash seeds, with tomatoes, with smoked chile, with hot chile, with yellow chile, with mild red chile sauce, yellow chile sauce, hot chile sauce, with "bird excrement" sauce, sauce of smoked chile, heated [sauces], bean sauce; [he sells] toasted beans, cooked beans, mushroom sauce, sauce of small squash, sauce of large tomatoes, sauce of ordinary tomatoes, sauce of various kinds of sour herbs, avocado sauce. (Sahagun 1950-1982, 10:69-70, retranslated)" ---America's First Cuisines, Sophie D. Coe [University of Texas Press:Austin TX] 1994 (p. 116-7)

Ancient chocolate
Ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures highly valued cacao and chocolate. They consumed it, in beverage form, for religious ceremonies and medicinal purposes. Cocoa beans were sometimes used as money. Many people are surprised to learn the Aztecs did not cook with chocolate. That practice was introduced by the Spanish.
Mole Poblano, a popular Mexican holiday recipe combining chocolate and chilies, was not eaten by the Aztecs.

According to the food historians, the Ancient Aztecs used many substances to flavor their chocolate drink. In fact? Drinking chocolate without adding flavorings, spices and other additions was almost unheard of. One of the most popular additions was powdered chilli (Capsicum annum). Maize was sometimes added as filler. Flowers were popular flavorings. There were were several, including chili! Chocolate was generally consumed cool, not hot like we Americans do today. About modern hot chocolate & cocoa.

"The idea of using chocolate as a flavoring in cook food would have been horrifying to the Aztecs--just as Christians could not conceive of using communion wine to make, say, coq au vin. In all of the pages of Sahagun that deal with Aztec cuisine and with chocolate, there is not a hint that it ever entered into an Aztec dish."
---True History of Chocolate, Sophie D. Coe & Michael D. Coe [Thames & Hudson:London] 2nd edition 2007 (p. 214-215)
[NOTE: this book offers much more information than can be paraphrased here. Your librarian can help you obtain a copy.]

"The chocolate-related documents that survive from the pre-Columbian era provide information only on medicinal recipes; we found no primary documentation that identified ingredients used to prepare chocolate for personal consumption. Recipes for pre-Columbian era medicinal chocolate are uncommon, but the following examples may be identified. Chocolate (unmixed with other products; very bitter) was drink by the Mexica/Aztecs to treat stomach and intestinal complaints; when combined with liquid extruded from the bark of the silk cotton tree..this beverage was use by traditional healers to cure infections. In another recipe prescribe to reduce fever and prevent fainting, 8-10 cacao beans were ground along with dried maize kernels; this powder then was mixed with tlacoxoshitl...and the resulting beverage was drunk...Eyewitness accounts describe a diner held in 1520 at Tenochtitlan, the Mexica/Aztec capitol, when Montezuma dined with Cortes and his Spanish Officers. At this meal the Mexica/Aztec king reportedly drank chocolate from cups of pure gold."
---Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage, Louis Evan Grivetti & Howard-Yana Shapiro [Wiley:New York] 2009 (p. 100)
[NOTE: this book offers extensive descriptions and translated excerpts from primary documents describing Early New Spain chocolate recipes. Your local public librarian will be happy to help you obtain a copy.]

About chocolate beverages & flavorings

"Among the more well-known spices were chenopodium, coriander and sage. Vanilla, extracted from the pods of a species of orchid, was among the most esteemed flavorings. Chocolate was prepared by grinding roasted cacao beans, sometimes with parched corn, and them mixing the powder with vanilla orchid pods or sweetened with honey. Like tea and coffee, this beverage is rich in caffeine and was much prized in ancient Mesoamerica."
---The Aztecs, Townsend (p. 173)

"Universally popular throughout Mesoamerica was the addition to the drink [chocolate] of chilli (Capsicum annum), dried and ground to a powder. The molina vocabulary calls the drink chilacacahuatl; of coruse, given the extraodinary array of chillis grown in Mexico, it could have been anywhere from mildly pungent to extremely hot...Sahagun's native informants gave him a menu of choclate drinks served to the ruler...'Then by himself in his house, his chocolate was served: green cacao-pods, honeyed chocolate, flowered chocolate, flavored with green vanilla, bright red chocolate, huitztexcolli-flower chocolate, flower-colored chocolate, black chocolate, white chocolate"...Fransico Hernandez gives us a chocolate recipe...What is interesting about Hernandez's recipe is that it contains three flavorings which we know were highly prized by the Aztecs. Th first is hueinacaztli, the thick, ear-shaped petal of the flower of Cymbopetalum pendulifolorum, a tree of the Annonaceae or custard-apple family, which grows in the tropical lowland forests of Veracruz, Oazaca, and Chiapas; this was one of the most valued products brought back by the pochtexa merchants from the expeditions. It is a confusing plant, because it has a least three Nahuatl names: it may be called hueinacaztli ("great ear"), teonacaztli ("divine ear"), or xochinacaztli ("flowry ear"). The distinguishing feature is the ending nacaztli, meaning "ear."...Be that is at may, Cymbopetalum penduliflorum was the premier chocolate flavor among the Aztecs...What did this flower taste like, once it have been turned into powder and added to the fine cacao? Sahagun as usual cautions against taking too much of it, warning that excess could lead to drunkenness...The second of Hernandez's reputedly aphrodesiac trio was tlilxochitl ("black flower"), none other than our familiar vanillla (Vanilla planifolia). In contradiction to his Nahuatl name, the vanilla flower is acutally greenish yellow; the plant is a climbing orchid, and it is the pod that is black...The last in Hernandez's trio of chocolate flavorings is mecaxochitl ("string flower"). This is a member of the genus Piper, probably Piper sanctum, and therefore actually related to black pepper. The flowers, said to be white by some and black by others, are tiny and packed on to an inflorescence. According to Hernandez, "taken with cachuatl [cacao] it gives an agreeable taste, is tonic, warms the stomach, perfumes the breath...combats poisons, [and] alleviates intestinal pains and colics." ...This by no means completes the inventory of Aztec chocolate flavorings. Two varieties of Magnolia mexicana could be added, although drying the flowers causes them to lose their fragrance while at the same time rationing their astringency. The flowers are shaped like a heart, hence the Nahuatl name yolloxochitl ("heart flower")...The "heart flower" tree, like the rest of the Magnolia family and genus, contains alkaloids; if the seeds and flowers of Magnolia mexicana are cooked in water and administered to a patient, they are supposed to augment the pulse and regularize the heartbeat, but an overdose causes arrhythmia...Izquixochitl ("popcorn flower") can be any one of several species of Bourreria in the borage family...Sahagun directs us to use it in chilled chocolate." ---True History of Chocolate, Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe [Thames and Hudson:New York] 1996 (p. 89-92)

How was the chocolate drink made?
"The basic Aztec method of preparing chocolate...was about the same as that prevalent among the Maya; the only real difference is that it seems to have been drunk cool rather than hot as seems to have been the case among the Maya of Yucatan. One of the earliest notices of this drink is by the hand of a man known to scholars as the Anonymous Conqueror, described as "a gentleman of Hernan Cortez," whos description of Tenochtitlan was published in Venice in 1556: These seeds which are called almonds or cacao are ground and made into powder, and other small seeds are ground, and this powder is put into certain basins with a point... and then they put water on it and mix it with a spoon. And after having mixed it very well, they change it from one basin to another, so that a foam is raised which they put in a vessel made for the purpose. And when they wish to drink it, they mix it with certain small spoons of gold or silver or wood, and drink it, and drinking it one must open one's mouth, because being foam one must give it room to subside, and go down bit by bit. This drink is the healthiest thing, and the greatest sustenance of anything you could drink in the world, because he who drinks a cup of this liquid, no matter how far he walks, can go a whole day without eating anything else.' To this encomium the Anonymous Conqueror adds the comment that "it is better in hot weather than in cool, being cold is its nature...According to Sahagun's native informants, fine chocolate was called tlaquetzalli ("precious thing"), and was prepared by the seller in this way: She grinds cacao [beans]; she crushes, breaks, pulverizes them. She chooses, selects, separates them. She drenches, soaks, steeps them. She adds water sparingly, conservativley; aerates it, filters it, strains it, pours it back and forth, aerates it; she makes it form a head, makes foam; she removes the head, makes it thicken, makes it dry, pours water in, stirs water into it.' The inferior product, the informatns tell us, was mixed with nixtuamalli and water--in other words, a chocolate-with-maize gruel drink...There is no mention in these primary sources of the grooved wooden beater or swizzle stick (Spanish molinillo) for the production of the much-prized foam, nor does any word for it appear in the first Nahuatl-Spanish dictionary, that of Alonso de Molina, published in Mexico City in 1571. This item, so important later on in chocolate preparation in America and Europe, must have been introduced from Spain during the 16th century. By the time the Jesuit Francesco Saverio Clavigero published his detailed report on native Mexican live and hsitory (in 1780, in Italian), he describes the use of the molinillo, but totally omits the pouring from one vessel to another to produce a good head on the drink...There is, however, ample mention of stirrers or stirring spoons. These were fashioned from tortoise or sea turtle shell. Some of these survived the Conquest, for among the confiscated goods of two Aztec sorcerers arested by the early Spanish Inquisition were many of these stirrers, along with cacao and the cups from wich chocolate was drunk. Which brings us to the cups themselves. A reading of our sources indicates that these were small, hemispherical bowls which could be of polychrome creamic; calabash gourd...painted or lacquered with designs; and even gold, in the case of the huei tlatoani."
---True History of Chocolate, Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe [Thames & Hudson:London] 1996 (p. 86-88)
[NOTE: This book contains far more information than can be paraphrased here. It also includes notes on the use of chocolate in Mayan civization.]

Need a recipe for class?
Here is the recipe for Mexican hot chocolate from Food and Feasts with the Aztecs, Imogene Dawson (p. 29). It is adapted for modern kitchens:

"Mexican hot chocolate
1/2 lb semisweet cooking chocolate
4 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 drops vanilla
1. Break the chocolate into small pieces. Put the pieces in the top of a double boiler or into the heatproof bowl.
2. Fill the bottom of the double boiler or a large saucepan with cold water. Then bring the water to a boil. Turn the heat down so that the water continues to boil gently.
3. Put the container with the chocolate over the one with the boiling water. With a wooden spoon, stir the chocolate until it has melted.
4. Measure out the milk and pour it into another saucepan. Heat the milk gently but do not let it boil. Pour the melted chocolate into the hot milk.
5. Add the cinnamon and the vanilla to the mixture and bring the mixture to a boil.
6. Turn the heat down and whisk the mixture for 2 minutes until it is foaming.
7. Pour the chocolate into mugs and use the small whisk to whisk the chocolate again, so that there is foam on the top of each mug."

Makes 4 mugs.
1. Cooking with boiling water and sharp knives can be very dangerous. Have an adult help you in the kitchen.
2. Before you bring this in to class, print a copy of this recipe and give it to your teacher. She can tell you if anyone is allergic to any of the ingredients.


What we know about Mayan cuisine in the earliest eras is constructed primarily from archaeolgical evidence. Spanish missionaries chronicled 16th century foods in great detail. Presumably, many of the foods consumed by Mayas in the 16th century were traditional foods with centuries of history. Maize was the staple food.

Ancient Mayan foods
"Maya food was that of a civilization which, unlike those of the Aztecs and Inca...had been in severe decline for many centuries before the voyages of Columbus opened the way for the Spanish conquest. However, the Maya remained an important ethnic group in SE. Mexico and C. America, and their history is an important part of American history. Were it not for the fact that all their books but four have perished, and that until very recently it had not been possible to decode their hieroglyphics, much more would be known and written about them...Maize was the staple food and had great cultural significance, figuring in all important sites such as those attending births and deaths. It was consumed in many ways: in liquid form, as posole or a gruel; and as breadstuff, in tortillas and tamales...Among the flesh foods, the turkey was important. It seems that both available species were eaten, the domesticated on how familiar worldwide and the ocellated turkey. Iguana meat was appreciated and the bones of that animal from at least one archaeolgical site are darkened, suggesting that it was roasted, possible on a a barbacoa (barbecue). There is evidence of numerous other animals such as armadillo, tapir, monkey, and the manatee...being eaten...Fish and seafood were much consumed in coastal areas, and there is also evidence of trade in conserved fish and consumption of small freshwater fish. In short, a wider variety of foods were eaten then than in modern times...Beekeeping...and honey were important features of Mesoamerican life; the Maya certainly used honey to sweeten some maize drinks, but it is not clear whether thay used it for preserves or confectionery. Chocolate, one of the great gifts of the New World to the Old, is often thought of as an Aztec thing. The Maya, however, were familiar with it many centuries earlier, using cacao beans as currency and drinking chocolate (although it is not known whether they reserved the beverage for ceremonial occasions or had it regularly)."
---Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 485-6)

"The study of Maya agricultural life is based on existing methods, archaeological finds, botanical and geographical observations, and sixteenth-century sources, many of which are quite detailed, but tell of customs in a less populous time. Some of the customs can be projected to the Classic period, but allowances must be made for a great deals of change. Although many observations and studies have been made, the overall pictures is still unclear. The Maize was prepared by boiling or soaking it in lime water and then draining it in a gourd colander. While it was still wet, it was ground on a metate--as small stone table--with a mano, a cylindrical handstone. The resulting paste was most commonly mixed with water to make pozole, a thin gruel, or formed into cakes, the still familiar tortillas, which were roasted on a flat pottery griddle and eaten with beans or chili. On special occasions chocolate was mixed with ground maize and spiced with chili. Beans and squash were often planted in the same hole with the maize or the rows between. There were numerous varieties of squash and pumpkin, and two varieties of beans, a red one and a black one. A traveler in the area today is aware of the ubiquitous frijole. Chili peppers, tomatoes, yucca, and sweet potatoes were also sometimes planted in the same field. Many of the foods of the Maya, both ancient and modern, are strange to us, such as manioc, chaya, and jicama; but other fruits and vegetables are found in today's supermarkets--avocados, sweet potatoes, guavas, and tomatoes--or are the sources of such familiar foods and seasonings as vanilla beans, chili peppers...chocolate. Several important food plants my have been developed by the Maya--cacao, manioc, the papaya, and the avocado pear...Most of the secondary food crops of the Central area were fruits...The breadnut frequently found around ruins. Other trees, both wild and domesticated, found in the area included hog plums, nance plums and guavas...The Maya hunted in the grassy savannas that dot the Lowland jungle, using traps and spears; the bow and arrow were not introduced until after the Classic period. The Maya was a considerate hunter, killing only what he needed...In addition to deer, the ancient Maya hunted birds...wild turkeys, curassows, wild boar*, rabbits, peccaries, and armadilows. Other sources of protein were fish, turtles, iguanas, and insects. There were fresh-water fish, and Yucatan, with its long seacoast, provided salt-water fish that could be dried or salted for shipment...Landa described the diet of the sixteenth-century Maya...In the evening they ate stews of vegetables and deer meat, fish, or the meat of wild or tame birds. For special feasts they had roasted fowl, bread, and a drink made from cacao."
---The Maya World, Elizabeth P. Benson, revised edition [Thomas Y. Crowell:New York] 1977 (p. 61-4)
[*: Wild boar was an "Old World" animal, introduced to Maya cuisine by the Spanish. Ancient Maya consumed a boar-like mammal called a peccary:
"Peccary...American animals which look something like a small wild pig, and are sometimes so called, but which belong to a different family, Tayassuidae. This family is the New World counterpart of the pig family in the Old World. The peccary is...also called musk hog. The range of the peccary is from S. Brazil to Arizona in the USA. It is eaten localy but is not accounted as a delicacy. For the Maya people, however, it was a food resource of some significance. The region of C. America which they inhabited was not rich, in pre-Columbian times, in edible animals." ---Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2nd edition 2007 (p. 593)
"Peccary, Javelin...Both the White-lipped and the White-collared Peccaries are extensively hunted for their flesh in Tropical America. Peccary meat is far superior to ordinary pork, being much mroe delicate and with a richer, wild game flavor." ---Foods America Gave the World, A, Hyatt Verrill [L.C. Page:Boston] 1937 (p. 267)

"By about 7000 BC, the ice sheets which had covered much of North America in the height latitudes were in full retreat, and during the next 5,500 years the climate of the world was everywhere warmer than it is today...In upland Mexico,the Indians were diverted to another way of life, based on an intensivired collection of the seeds and roots of wild plants, and upon the killing of smaller, more solitary animals. In their economy, in their semi-nomadic pattern of settlement, and even in the details of their tool-kits, the Mexican Indians of the Archaic period were only part of the "Desert Culture"...It was in Mexico, however, and in this "Desert Culture" contexts, that all the important plant foods of Mesoamerica--maize, beans, squashes, chile peppers, and many others--were first domesticated. It seems likely that the practice of plant cultivation must have reached the Maya area at some times during the Archaic period...a little maize was being grown near the margins of the lake [Petenxil], a good 1,000 years before the first pottery--using farmers are known for the region...a slowly increasing number of grinding tools relating to the processing of seeds and other vegetable materials, and gradually expanding and perhaps seasonal dependence upon marine resources. Unfortunately, preservation of plant materials and faunal remains is poor."
---The Maya, Michael D. Coe, 6th edition [Thames and Hudson:London] 1999 (p. 43-6)

"Numerious shell middens located in the mangrove-lined estuaries seem to represent seasonal occupation by somewhat mobile, non-farming groups that largely subsisted upon hunting and fishing...the baghos could have served as sunken fields for agriculture, as they retained enough moisture for a third corn crop to be raised in addition to the two that are normal for the Soconusco plain...Maize cobs are found in Soconusco sites beginning about 1700BC, but these are small and not very productive ears...carbon pathway analysis of human skeletal material has shown that maize was not very important in the diets of these Early Preclassic villagers...[it is] speculated that they might have been relying on manioc or cassava, and ancient root crop of the New World tropics, rather than maize, but the evidence for this remains elusisive."
---The Maya, Coe, 6th edition (p. 46-47)

[1500BC-850 BC]
"Really effective farming...was an innovation of the Formative Period...What brought it about? Some scholars favour the theory that it was a major improvement in the productivity of the maize plant...In those days, settlements were little more than tiny hamlets of sum three to twenty families each...The Early Formative villagers efficiently exploited the rich, brackish water environment, gathering mangrove oysters and marsh clams in great numbers, and taking turtles and crabs, while iguanas...were caught for their tasty flesh and eggs. In the lagoons and nearby rivers they fished for gar, snook, porgy, and catfish...The scarcity or in some cases complete absence in Ocos and Cuadros sites of bones from animals which would have required some effort to secure, such as deer and peccary, testify to the sit-at-home propensities of these people."
---The Maya, Michael D. Coe [Frederick A. Praeger:New York] 1966 (p. 42-3)

"Many varieties of animals were hunted as game in the lowlands...Jaguars, wild pigs, and tapirs were dangerous and may have been hunted mainly by members of the elite. Gourd and cord traps, nets, and dogs were probably used by commoners to catch birds, iguanas, and other small animals; for the larger animlas the nobles probably used bows and arrows. Turkeys, partridges, pheasants, quail, pigeons, chachalacas, parrots, deer, ducks, coyotes, martins, foxes, badgers, squirrels, armadilloes, rabbits, eagles, macaws, coatis, iguanas, and pacas inhabited the lowland area and were probably hunted. The Indians also ate domesticated native dogs...Fish from the rivers and tributaries served as supplementary food and items of trade. Mojarras...and trout...were good fish but were available in only small quantities...During the late sixteenth century the Indians of Xeoj and Quoij also ate crabs and shrimp...Indians living on the lower coastal plain may have engaged in fishing and salt making in Pre-Hispanic times..."
---The Tzutujil Mayas: Continuity and Change, 1250-1630, Sandra Orellana [University of Oklahoma Press:Norman OK] 1984 (p. 11-12)

[16th Century]
"Maya agriculture...was the foundation of civilization. Maize, beans, squashes, chili peppers, cotton, and various kinds of fruit trees were cultivated...In Yucatan, the Maya stored their crops in above-ground cribs of wood, but also in fine underground places which might well be the chultuns so common in Classic sites. It is not certain that the lowlands Maya ate tortillas (flat cakes), but other ways of preparing maize are mentioned in the early sources. These include atole, a corn-meal gruel which was taken with chili pepper as the first meal of the day; posol, a mixture of water and sour-dough carried in gourds to the fields for sustenance during the day; and the well-known tamale. The peasant cuisine (we know little of that current among the elite class) was largely confined to such simple foods as to stews compounded from meat and vegetables, to which were added squash seeds and peppers. Cash crops' were of prime importance to Yucatan. ..The chocolate bean...provided the preferred drink of the Mesoamerican ruling classes, but well into Colonial times the beans served as a form of money in regional markets...Every May household had its own kitchen garden in which vegetables and fruit trees were raised, and fruit groves were scattered near settlements as well. Papaya, avocado, custard apple, sapodilla, and the breadnut tree were all cultivated, but many kinds of wild fruits were also eaten, especially in times of famine...Both wild and domestic turkeys were known...The larger mammals, such as deer and peccary, were hunted with the bow-and-arrow in drives (though in Classic times the atlatl-and-dart must have been the principal weapon), aided by packs of dogs. Birds like the wild turkey, partridge, wild pigeon, quail, and wild duck were take with pellets shot from blow guns. A variety of snares and deadfalls were shown in the Madrid Codex, especially a trap for armadillo. In Yucatan, fishing was generally of the offshore kind, by means of sweep and drag nets and hook-and-line, but fish were also shot with bow-and-arrow in lagoons. Inland, especially in the highland streams, stupefying drugs were pounded in the water, and the fish taken by hand once they had floated into artificial dams...Along the coasts the catch was salted and dried or roasted over a fire for use in commerce."
---The Maya, Coe (1966 edition) (p. 138-141)

"Their principal diet is maize, from which they make various kinds of food and drink...The Indian women leave the maize to soak overnight in lime water so that in the morning it is soft and therefore partly prepared; in this fashion the husk and the stalk are separated from the grain. They grind it between stones, and while half ground, make large balls and loads of it to give to workmen, travelers, and sailors; and these balls last several months, only become sour [but do not go bad]. From the rest they take a lump and mix it in a bowl made from the shell of a fruit which grows on a tree and by means of which God provided them with vessels. They drink this substance and eat the rest, and it is tasty and very nutritious. From the most finely ground maize they extract a milk which they thicken over the fire to make into a kind of porridge, which they drink hot in the morning. They throw water on what is left over from the morning and drink it during the day because they are not accustomed to drink water on its own. They also toast and grind the maize and dilute it with a little pepper and cacao, which makes a most refreshing drink. From the ground maize and cacao they make a foaming drink with which they celebrate their feasts. They extract form cacao a grease which resembles butter, and from this and from the maize they make another drink which is both tasty and highly regarded...The make bread in a number of ways; and it is a good and healthy bread; but it is bad to eat cold so the Indian women go to pains to make it twice a day...They make stews of vegetables and the meat of deer and of wild and tame fowl, and also of sick; all of which may be found in large numbers. They also have good provisions, because they now breed the pigs and poultry of Castile. In the morning they drink the hot drink with peppers, which has been described, at the midday athe other cold ones, and at night the stews; and if there is no meat, they make their sauces out of pepper and vegetables. The men were not accustomed to eat with the women; they ate on the floor or, at most, off a mat for a table. They eat well when they have food but when they do not they do not they endure hunger very well and survive on very little. They wash their hands and mouths after eating."
---The Maya: Diego de Landa's Account of the Affairs of the Yucatan, translated and edited by A.R. Pagden [J. Philip O'Hara:Chicago IL] 1975 (p. 66-7)

Recommended reading:


"The Inca, inhabiting much of what is now Peru, had only recently established their empire when the Spaniards arrived in force in the 1530s and toppled them. In this respect and in their more southerly location they were different from the ancient Maya and the Aztecs, with whom it is natural to compare them...Among other differences, one of the most important was that, whereas the Aztecs had no large domesticated animals, the Inca had two: the llama and the alpaca; and they also had available for food the vicuna and the guanaco (relations of the llama), various deer, and the domesticated guinea pig...Their main food was maize, but quinoa was a close runner up. The potato...provided crops which being underground were protected from the frost, hail, and storms typical of the mountain climate. Greens were also available in a wide variety...the Inca...also consumed mayfly larvae, caterpillars, beetles, and ants. The Inca were sophisticated in techniques for preserving food, and had a remarkable system of warehouses and a complex organization for distribution from them." ---Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 396)

"The food of the imperial family as much more plentiful and varied than that of the common people...Maize was roasted, boiled, or ground into flour in the form of semolina. The grain of quinua, achita, and canahua was also made into flour and used as a basis for soup, with other vegetables or starchy foods. Beans and red beans were eaten cooked, roasted and seasoned with salt an pepper. Potatoes were prepared in the form of chuno, that is they were exposed alternately to frost by night and heat by day until they were completely dry. All that was then required was to grind them, mix them with water, salt and pepper to obtain a gruel which was very popular in the Andes. Yuca and oca were treated in the same way. All Indians used the dried condiments, aji and mani very extensively. The nobility added fruits from the tropical valleys to this diet, and above all, in contrast to the common people, they ate meat --llamas of less than three years of age and vicunas less than two years old...The Emporer and his family were able to make considerable additions to their diet. These were brought from different provinces with great speed by runners; excellent wild duck and partridges from the puna, mushrooms, frogs from Lake Chinchayacocha, snails, fish and shell-fish from the Pacific, and these were completely fresh in spite of the distance...As for drink, all classes of the population used and abused the traditional chicha, from the monarch to the humblest of this subjects."
--- Daily Life in Peru, Louis Baudin [Macmillan:New York] 1962 (p. 84-5)

"Two meals a day were eaten, one soon after dawn and the other an hour or two before sunset. The food was cooked in earthenware pots placed on several round openings cut in the top of the stove. At mealtimes, the family squatted or sat on the ground...Most commonly, meals consisted of boiled or roasted corn and either potatoes or quinoa, a tiny grain that puffed up in cooking like barley. These formed the base of soups and stews to which a variety of beans and herbs such as hot chilies might be added. It was not unknown for soups to be furthered flavored by the addition of small birds, frogs, and certain edible worms. This corn-domintated diet was supplemented by an enormous range of tubers and fruits, which varied from region to region. Fish was, of course, plentiful on the coast and around Lake Titicaca. But in most highland areas, the main and only regular source of meat was the guinea pig, and animal that lived and multiplied with the family and, when roasted, provided delicious fare. In some areas ducks were raised for food, and in Huanca province dogs were eaten...Outside a peasant dwelling, an enclosure might hold a few llamas. Herds of these animals provided nobility with good, mutton-flavored meat. But for the ordinary person, such food was a luxury to be enjoyed only when an animal had ceased being of use. As a beast of of burden and a source of wool, llamas were too valuable to waste as food. When they were eaten, often the meat was cut into thin strips, dried by exposure to the sun and frost, then pounded between two stones to flatten and tenderize it. All meat preserved this way was known as charqui. The peasants would not drink chicha from their tumblers until after eating. This cloudy beer, consumed every day in moderation and in great quantities at festival time, could be produced from a number of cultivated plants other than corn, including quinoa and oca...Young, able-bodied women spent a great deal of their time preserving food for later consumption."
---Incas: Lords of Gold and Glory, [Time-Life Books:Alexandria VA] 1992 (p. 135-6)

Where and how was Inca food collected?

Animals & minerals: "Even in pre-Columbian times...vegetation was sparse, because for all practical purposes it does not rain on the Paicfic coast of Peru. The ocean, however, is brimming over with life, because the cold Humboldt current carries immense quantities of nutrients which feed great populations of mollusks, fish, birds, and sea mammals. A trifle inland, in the foothills of the Andes, you get the first consistent vegetation. It is watered by the mist...that blows in off the sea, and therefore varies with the season. In a good year it can provide pasture and edibles like snails. Above this region...the mountains rise rapidly...Despite the altitude this was the most prosperous part of the Inca empire...Even though this description of the Inca area is of the sketchiest it should be evident that there are enormous quantities of ecological niches available...It makes plausible the Peruvian claim that their inventory of domesticated plants is the world's largest...The Inca had not one by two species of domesticated large mammals: the llama...and the alpaca...Along with the two wild species, the vicuna...and the guanaco...The llama seems to have been domesticated in the highlands between 4550 and 3100 B.C....Other early sources describe ducks being eaten in Peru...There were other edible wild animals and birds...deer...and vizcacha...The sea also provided food, especially dried fish, the mainstay of the Inca army...Frogs...provided meat in other places...mayfly larvae, which develop on the highland lakes during lent, were also consumed...Caterpillars, beetles, and ants were also eaten, but we have no accounts of precisely how. The preservation of meat, fish and insects immediately suggests salt. There was plenty of salt available in Peru, both from the sea and from salt springs in the highlands. We know that salt was a highly valued condiment because the simpler stages of fasting and penance consisted of eating with out salt or chile..."
---America's First Cuisines, Sophie D. Coe [University of Texass Press:Austin] 1994 (p. 169-180)

Vegetables: "Several species of Chenopodium were grown for their seeds in Peru and provided edible leaves for greens as well...[it] is an extremely-high-altitude s emidomesticated plain in Peru, where it grows at an altitude of up to 3,600 meters in the Andes. More important is...quinoa, also a plant of high altitudes...Besides entering into gruels and soups and stews, quinoa seeds were also toasted and ground and make into various forms of bread or mixed with condiments, fat, and salt and the resulting balls steamed...Another high-altitude plant used for seeds and leaves was a lupine...tarwi or chocho...The potato...was domesticated in the highlands of Peru between 3700 and 3000B.C....We have archaeological evidence for the Inca resettling conquered tribes of their potato-growing heights into the maize-growing valleys...'It is difficult to list all the greens, because there are so many of them and they are so small. It is enough to say that the Indians eat all of the sweet and the bitter alike. Some of them are eaten raw...some of them cooked in soups and stews. They are the food of the common people who did not have an abundance of meat'...Seaweeds were harvested and eaten fresh on the coast or dried into sheets or blocks and traded into the highlands...Among the fruit trees which were used Peru was the pepper tree...This pungent-smelling tree produced the pink peppercorns...Passion fruit are another New World domesticate...The fruit which obtained the highest praise were the almonds of Chachapoyas..."
---ibid (p. 181-190)
Quinoa notes.]

Governmetn food collection, storage & distribution
"One of the several Inca said to have founded the system of warehouses and established the redistribution network of the Inca state. 'He ordered that all the lords and chiefs who were there would meet in his house on a certain day, that when they had come together as he had ordered...he told them that it was necessary that there be in the city of Cuzco warehouses of all the foodstuffs: maize, chile, beans, tarwi, chicas, quinoa, and dried meat, and all the other provisions and preserved foods that they have, and therefore it was necessary that he order them to bring them from their lands. And then Inca Yupanqui showed them certain slopes and mountainsides around the city of Cuzco and visible from it and ordered them to build granaries there, so that when the food was brought there would be somewhere to put it. And the lords went to the sites that the Inca showed them, and got to work, and built the granaries. it toook them five years to build them and divide the lands, because there were so many granaries to build...And he divided among them the maize, the dry meat, the dry fish, and llamas...and dishes to use, and everythign else he thought necessary for their housekeeping. And he commanded that every four days they give and share out among everybody in Cuzco what one needed of food and provisions...ordering that the food and provisions be taken out of the granaries and put on the plaza of the city in great heaps...and that from there they be divided by measure and number and reason, giving each what he needed'...Inca laws commanded not only storage and distribution but what should be grown, what should be eaten, and how it should be treated...'We command that there be an abundance of food throughout the kingdom, and that they plant very much maize, potatoes, and ocas' and make caui, kaya, chuno, and tamos...and chococal...and quinoa, ulluco, and masua...That they dry all the foods including yuyos [greens] so that ther will be food to eat all year round, and that they plant communally...maize, potatoes, chile, mango.'..."
---ibid (p. 195-198)

Did the Inca drink chocolate like the Aztecs and Maya?
Sophie Coe's America's First Cuisines contains several reference to cocoa/chocolate with regards to Maya and Aztec cultures, but nothing with regards to Inca use. The True History of Chocolate/Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe contains this interesting passage: "Simple, reduplicated syllables are frequently among common names for plants, and have led the unwary to find cacao where it did not and does not exist. We must be careful not to confuse Theobroma cacao with the coconut palm, Cocos nucifera, and tis prdoucts; these often go under the name "coco" in tropical America. if we are successful in avoiding this obstacle, there is another--also a New World plant and also sometimes used to produce a drink--tos tumble over. This is the coca bush, Erythroxylum coca, the leaves of which were chewed by the Incas of Peru and their predecessors. Many a reader has come across the word "coca" in accounts of Peru, and has been deceived by it into enrolling the Incas into the ranks of pre-Columbian chocolate drinkers." (p. 19)

Need to make something for class?
Authentic Inca recipes are hard to find. There are several online/print sources which *interpret* foods of the ancients. Most, however, include *Old World* or ethnic ingredients introduced much later. If you want to be place/period correct (and still serve your classmates something they might eat??!) we suggest boiled quinoa. This sacred grain provided necessary subsistence for the Incas.
The Basic Quinoa Recipe.
This light and wholesome grain may be prepared quickly and easily with this basic method. 2 cups water 1 cup quinoa Place quinoa and water in a 1-½ quart saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook until all the water is absorbed (about 15 minutes). You will know that the quinoa is done when all the grains have turned from white to transparent, and the spiral-like germ has separated. Makes 3 cups. Source.
Where to get quinoa? If your local supermarket doesn't sell it (check the rice/pasta aisle) then try health food stores and organic grocers.

FoodTimeline library owns 2300+ books, hundreds of 20th century USA food company brochures, & dozens of vintage magazines (Good Housekeeping, American Cookery, Ladies Home Journal &c.) We also have ready access to historic magazine, newspaper & academic databases. Service is free and welcomes everyone. Have questions? Ask!

About culinary research & about copyright

Research conducted by Lynne Olver, editor The Food Timeline. About this site.
© Lynne Olver 2000
1 March 2015